Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Rashomon

Rashomon. Directed by Akira Kurosawa & Written by Shinobu Hashimoto & Akira Kurosawa.

: Despite my regular viewings of and enjoyment in the old black and white flicks, I can be a real philistine about them. Instead of being able to enjoy them on their own merits, I spend a lot of time thinking about how this might have been cool when it was released but now it's something I've seen re-done endlessly. This is particularly true of movies by directors that have revolutionized film making. While intellectually I see how some of these flicks are important, it doesn't make them any more interesting to watch. I was afraid that Rashomon was going to be one of these and that watching it would make me feel like an ingrate. Also, while I like Seven Samurai okay, I have a barbarian fondness for the Magnificent Seven. But, as I mentioned last week, Judge John Hodgman strongly suggested (which should be taken as an order to mere mortals) that his audience watch this movie. He isn't someone I'd argue with lightly (there is a real danger of being sawed in half).

General Review
: For those of you who haven't obeyed the Judge, first off, shame on you. Second off, Rashomon is basically about the unreliable narrator. We are told the story of a bandit attacking a married couple from a number of different perspectives at a trial, all of them varying wildly from each other (think P.O.V. from Batman the Animated Series). To my great surprise and delight, Rashomon really held up.

To say that Kurosawa is an excellent director is completely pat and meaningless at this point. I wasn't surprised that the movie was well directed, I expected that. I was surprised by how interesting and cool it was, even though I knew the gimmick and directorial style ahead of time. I'm often not particularly interested in seeing the same story over and over again, Groundhog Day is one of my most hated movies and Cause and Effect (Star Trek: TNG) sets my teeth on edge. Rashomon did not. Each retelling of the story is markedly different from the previous one and the acting and directing are also distinct from scene to scene. The part with the medium is particularly eerie.

I've been told by more than one person that I'm overly fussy about score. I'm not at all snobby about music in general, because I know basically nothing about it. However, when a score overpowers the scene, it throws me into wild temper tantrums. And while this still certainly happens in modern movies, overall it was way worse in classic films. Hitchcock said (and I'm paraphrasing pretty badly here) that he never understood why the music director would ask him to come hear pieces of the score, because by that point it was already written and he had no control over it anyways. That's the feeling I get with a lot of older movies, that the director just had to make due with whatever score was flung at him. When the opening strains of Rashomon blared at me, with terrible comic cues and all, I thought I was in for a world of suffering. Not the case. The overbearing score was a deliberate choice and as we get closer and closer to what actually happened the score is stripped down further and further. It was a thoughtful piece of work and a more skillful use of music than I see in a lot of modern movie.

While for the most part the acting was top notch, I gotta say Toshiro Mifune drove me nuts. Remember my complaints about the crouching and overacting of Alexander Granach in Nosferatu? You can basically cut and paste those here. Mifune jumps around ridiculously and has a harsh, un-infectious laugh that reminds me distinctly of Krankor in Prince of Space. The entire story would have worked better for me if he was a stronger, more dangerous character. Machiko Kyo and Masayuki Mori helped fill the gap, however. Kyo's performance varied the widest from scene to scene and she managed to play both vivacious hellcat and fainting virgin convincingly. Mori had a coldness that got me int the guts.

It's no surprise that Ras
homon is utterly gorgeous. Kurosawa managed to portray the beauty of his setting without the tiniest bit of colour. I've seen plenty of modern spectacles that simply don't manage to show us anything this pretty. Something I did miss from today's movies was the tightly choreographed fight scenes. I guess making them be basically flailing slap fights is more realistic, but it wasn't particularly interesting to watch. And there was more than one of them. They were the only points where my attention drifted.

Don't be surprised if you see a couple more Kurosawa flicks here in upcoming weeks, because this movie has convinced me to give him the Hitchcock treatment and work my way through his Filmography. Thanks again to the good Judge!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Girl on...Game? Action: Dragon Age 2 by Bioware

Dragon Age 2 by Bioware
Executive Producer and Project Director: Mark Darrah
Lead Designer: Mike Laidlaw
Lead Writer: David Gaider


Dragon Age II tells the story of a member of the Hawke family, a refugee of the Fifth Blight who became a central figure in events that would reshape Thedas.

The full story is not well-documented, and the details of how a refugee became Kirkwall’s Champion are known only to a few.  The story is not told as it happens, but long afterward.

And the narrator is sometimes prone to exaggeration.


Aside:  What’s this? You say.  Well, I’m here to show you that while I love books, I do other things, too, like play video games.  I even have a book review all written and ready to go – but I couldn’t stop thinking about this game.  So I did what any blogger would do – I asked twitter if I should review a video game.  What stuck with me most out of the responses I got to the query is someone saying that there aren’t enough women who review games and it would be interesting to see what I had to say about it.  You see, since the game’s release, the majority of people on my list talking about Dragon Age 2 have been girls, or rather, women (while the boys have been talking about the Pokemon game...no, really).  So here I am, ready to give you some girl on Dragon Age 2 action.  Are you ready for it?

My  Morrigan Action Figure
My Thoughts:

First, an anecdote, if you will.  I loved Dragon Age: Origins and I spent many hours feeling unrequited love for Morrigan, knowing full well that she was not a female romance option (and there was no patch to fix this for the XBox version *sigh*).  I went so far as to kill Wynne, the character who would normally be your group’s healer, in an effort to impress.  I didn’t think anyone could replace her in my pixellated heart.  I was wrong, but we’ll get to that...eventually.  My point is, I wasn’t sure that Bioware could top the emotional engagement I felt with Origins and I am happy to say that I was proven wrong.

I’m going to do my best to be really, really vague about the plot.  I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone and I truly believe that you have to experience it on your own to really appreciate it.  I’m also worried that I’ll give away alternate endings / outcomes if I talk about how my game went in too much detail - some people, Wren among them, have these responsible 9-5 job things and haven't finished the game yet.

That said – holy bejeezus the story was engaging!  And the characters!  I had pretty much avoided reading about the game before it came out aside from watching the trailers – I knew nothing about my companions, or the world I’d be playing in.  So, when we run into Anders (whom I pined for ceaselessly in the romance-less Awakenings expansion) I was a-titter with excitement (Morrigan who?).  Now, if you’ll forgive me a moment of fan-girl crush gushing: Anders, omg! I love him! And back off my kool-aid Isabella!  Okay, focus Doom; no one wants to read about your infatuation with a character in a game, regardless of his smoldering, broody looks.  Case in point:

Anders *swoon*
Where were we? Oh yes, the story! It pulled me in and held me captive in the best sort of way.  I liked the progression of events and that early choices actually had an effect on the way things worked out later on, which is something other games promise but don't deliver.  Also, as much as I enjoyed the first game, I was happy to not be fighting a Blight.  In some ways, I would argue that this game is more political and even more character-driven.  Eventually, I had to put everything else aside and sit down to finish the game, because I could not handle the anxious anticipation anymore.  That's a sign of a well-told tale.  At the end, I was left with more questions than answers and I’ve been mulling things over ever since – not just related to the game, but how some elements of the narrative can be related to the real world (which is way less interesting than Thedas, if you ask me, we could benefit from some dragons).
And the characters – aside from Anders *sigh* - were all well-written and dynamic.  I didn’t really hate anyone in my party, but I also disagreed with a lot of them.  Oh wait, I retract that – I hate Carver and want to stab him in his stupid face.  The interaction between Hawke and her party felt organic, natural.  The background banter really helped with establishing that the characters had relationships outside of running around at your beck and call, too.  The banter in the first one was entertaining, but it didn't have this same feeling of being part of an ongoing conversation between the characters and that they were forming friendships on their own.

I think my only real complaint is that there wasn’t enough.  I finished at about 35 hours played, which is a bit short all things considered.  Although, I very much appreciate that there weren’t any dungeon-areas that felt like they would never end (I’m looking at you Fade quest in Origins), even if they ended up feeling repetitive due to environment recycling.  Honestly, this was probably the most annoying part of the game and detracted from my enjoyment - it's hard to stay in the story when you are in the same cave 100 times but it's supposed to be a different one each time.  I know that caves are supposed to look alike, but when you can memorize the maps and remember all the hidey-holes it's a problem.  But, the story was tight.  

Generic Hawke as a rogue
I think where I would have added extra playtime would have been interactions with your companions.  In Origins you could go to camp and pretty much strike up a conversation anytime, you’d learn about Alistair being raised by dogs, or hear about Leiliana’s time in Orlais or what have you.  Giving a few more conversations with your fellows would have fleshed things out a little more and would have helped with feeling like they’ve known each other for years by the end of the game.  (Oh and because I'm lonely in my Ivory Tower, I could have gone for a couple more romance scenes, just saying.)  And really, saying I wanted more is not a proper complaint.  There were a couple of glitches - two quests glitched on me, but it wasn't anything a quick reload didn't fix.  Oh and once I backstabbed something and ended up stuck in an invisible wall.  That was fun and reminded me of the mantra "save often," because my last save was, well, a while ago at that point.  Minor stuff for a big game.

I could probably keep writing about all the things this game did right in my eyes, but I’ll leave you with what is obviously a hearty recommendation.  You know, unless you need to do responsible things with your life rather than have fun in Thedas.  And now, I need to go finish my second play through, hopefully with less swooning (okay, who am I kidding? There will be just as much Anders-induced swooning, anyone have a fainting couch I could borrow?).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Weeks Too Late: The Walking Dead- Days Gone Bye

The Walking Dead-Days Gone Bye. Adapted/Developed & Directed by Frank Darabont.

Preconceptions: I came prepared to talk about a couple of movies this week. Over the weekend I saw the abysmal, Fox TV Movie version, of Doctor Who for the first time since I was a kid. Also, on the say so of the great and powerful Judge John Hodgman I finally sat down and watched Rashomon, a Kurosawa film that my brain has been meaning to see for some time. But even with the staggering high of Rashomon and the plummeting low of Fox's Doctor Who, I've spent the last few days thinking about Days Gone Bye. (I never miss the opportunity to review something, though, so expect to hear me jawing about those other two movies in the upcoming weeks). While I enjoy a handful of good TV shows I try to keep the scope of this blog to movies, Days Gone Bye felt a lot more like an excellent short horror film than it did the pilot to a running series. What's more I can't seem to dislodge it from my head, so despite it being a television show, you all have to hear about it.

General Review: I knew I liked Darabont going in. I'm hardly being controversial when I say that The Shawshank Redemption is an awesome movie. I'm maybe going out a little further into nut job territory when I say The Mist is one of the only really good horror movies in the last couple of years (well it is...though he does seem to have a strangely Stephen King heavy filmography). Darabont's directing in this pilot is breathtaking. He manages to sell beauty, horror and isolation all in a brief hour. He also manages to get us to know and care about quite a number of characters in that same time. While I believe firmly that the good shows on TV are getting better and better (though I still choose to watch some of the trashy options) this pilot is a cut above. To call it film quality is insulting. I've seen plenty of movies that don't have the subtlety or craftsmanship of Days Gone Bye.

I read the first arc of the Walking Dead comic, by Robert Kirkman (whose comic, Invincible, I loved), and thought it was okay, but wasn't impressed. While I try not to be overly swayed by the art in comics (I really come for the writing) this was an exception. The character designs were so generic, I couldn't tell who was who. The fact that it was in black and white meant I didn't even have the Archie comic advantage of different hair colour. I was only able to pick out the protagonist because of his police uniform and signature hat. When a second guy in uniform showed up I was ready to throw up my hands. Getting around to my point (finally), though I wasn't a huge fan of the comic, I am utterly in love with this.

Besides the obvious advantage of being able to tell one character from another, let me mention again how fabulous I thought the directing was. If you'll forgive me, I'd like to gush my praise, like so much gore, more specifically. Two scenes stuck out for me particularly and you'll know them when you see them. Rick, our main character the policeman (not to be confused with his best friend who is also a policeman), spends some time searching a park for half a zombie. I keep flashing back on this because of the skill that Darabont uses in being able to entwine the idyllic setting with evisceration. Secondly, Rick entering the city of Atlanta and the following chase sequence had me rapt. Even though I've read the comic and had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen, I was worried for the character. Now that is some suspense.

To get away from the directing (before I start going on and on about how repeating themes and images are gently and naturally incorporated into the episode over and over...erm, yes, without getting into that) let me talk a bit about the cast. Wow. While the directing certainly would have sold me on Days Gone Bye, what performances we're being treated to. There isn't one of them that doesn't sell a series of complicated emotions and reactions, but Lennie James (Morgan) and Andrew Lincoln (Rick) are particularly good. There are a lot of long, dialog-less scenes that Lincoln holds together strictly by the strength of his performance. And James is only in it briefly, but makes us like and respect the calm, gentle character almost immediately. Keisha Tillis also does some impressive zombie-ing.

The slow, sad decay of Romero and the inundation of zombies into most everything had made me certain that I was ready for a well earned break from this particular type of the undead (y'know just like I needed a break from vampires in the mid to late nineties). Days Gone Bye reminded me that no matter how frequently a particular type of story is told, if it's told well I can't stay sick of it. And yes, I'm most of the way through the rest of the series now and am enjoying it, but Days Gone Bye really stands up on its own. Even if you go into it with all the prejudices I did, this particular hour of TV is well worth your time.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Nosferatu by Christopher Howard Wolf

Nosferatu by Christopher Howard Wolf, Justin Wayne and Sal Nieto
ISBN: 978-098271177-4


In 1922, the classic film “Nosferatu” gave fear a new face.  F.W. Murnau’s tale of terror, starring the unsettlingly talented Max Schreck, has influenced horror as a genre for many decades to come.

Though his name may be unfamiliar, there are few who would not recognize the visage of the iconic Count Orlok.  He is a mysterious, disturbing being that seems to exist on the fringe of immortality, playing on our most basic fear of the inhuman.

Now, Christopher Howard Wolf, Justin Wayne, and Sal Nieto bring you a revamped version of this classic tale.  With horror, suspense, dark humour, and a touch of action, the Nosferatu graphic novel pays homage to the original masterpiece while expanding the story for a new millennium.


Aside: As Wren promised, I'm here to review the Nosferatu graphic novel as part two of our dual review. You'll be happy to know that I only tortured her a tiny bit for her thoughts on the movie and she should recover in time to write something new for you to read on Tuesday (hopefully, one can never tell for sure with these things). 

My Thoughts:

Now, to re-iterate what Wren told you earlier this week, I’m slowly working my way through my MA and I’m writing my thesis on F.W. Murnau’s iconic 1922 film Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens, so the topic is one close to my heart and consistently on my mind.  When I heard that there would be a Nosferatu graphic novel, I cringed, knowing without even seeing the updated plot that it would be...well...campy at best.  I mean, I've spent the past few months dissecting the film and reading article upon article about it.  I was not disappointed.

You might expect me to rip this book apart and offer you nothing but snarky quips, but I'm not going to do that. Why?  Well, because I don’t actually think it's bad and only things that don’t meet my exacting standards get the full treatment of my scorn.  Plenty of things escape my scorn daily: kittens, chocolate, Dragon Age 2, books (obviously), Stash's Orange Spice black tea and apparently a lot of things about this comic, so there you go.  I take the writer at his word when he mentions in his introduction that his tongue is firmly planted in his cheek.  Also, I’m a sucker for a pretty girl with piercings (the same applies to pretty boys with piercings) and the book definitely has those.  And while I’m certainly no expert when it comes to graphic novels (Hey! I've read Sandman! Also: JTHM, Squee and most of Lucifer), I will say that the art in this is nice to look at and very colourful.  I was never confused about what was happening in a given panel, which for a novice such as me is a big deal.  I don’t know how to read these picture books, they don’t have enough words in them and I get confused (Wren wants me to make a Ben Templesmith joke here, but I have no idea what she's talking about, so I won't go there).

Okay, I lied, I have one quip.  I don't think I've ever met anyone with a lip ring who managed to snag it on a fork to the point of bleeding profusely, my own clumsy self included.  So when Tommy Hutter, lesbian photographer extraordinaire, does precisely that I was a bit baffled.  Couldn't she have cut herself with a knife the way all the others who venture to Dracula's castle in all the other adaptations have pretty much done?

Spoiler alert:  I’m going to talk about the updated plot for the next paragraph, so if you want to find out what has changed on your own, I suggest you skip ahead. 

I can’t say that I think the story gained anything through having a lesbian couple, but ultimately it doesn’t detract from it either.  Hutter was a fairly ineffectual male protagonist, but since that is my reading of him, it didn’t sit well with me that in the end, it’s not Elle (apparently the name Ellen isn't "cool" enough so they dropped the "n") who defeats the vampire, but Tommy Hutter.  I also don’t approve of the happy ending.  I think something that the film Nosferatu does well is give a happy ending, but at the cost of Ellen’s life - without her death, the plague will not end and everyone in Wisborg will die.  In this graphic novel, Elle lives, because Tommy and Special Agent Bullner (Dr. Bulwer in the movie I presume) prevent Orlok from draining her completely and they then do battle with the vampire.  Tommy gets him into the elevator and takes it to the roof so the night-creature burns in the sunlight.  The plague ends, Elle survives and everyone lives happily ever after.  I hate that kind of ending.

Here endeth the spoilers.

Vital plot changes aside, the updated version works well enough for what it is: a cheap retelling of a classic tale.  I do pity people who read this graphic novel without ever having seen either Murnau’s film, or Werner Herzog’s 1979 adaptation.  In the end, I think this comic book is a nice novelty item to have if you’re a Nosferatu fan, but aside from that I can’t really recommend that you rush out to read it.  Actually, if you’re reading this post right now and haven’t seen at least one of those movies stop reading right now and remedy that oversight (What is wrong with you?  I’m taking away some of your geekdom points). 

Monday, March 14, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Nosferatu

Nosferatu. Directed by F.W. Murnau & Sort of Written by Henrik Galeen.

: That's right, we're back at writing a dual review, though this time it's going to be this film and the comic version of it (that's bound to be a winner, right?). Look forward to Doomwench's obvious enjoyment of the comic on Saturday.

Preconceptions: Yes, Doomwench is presenting insight on this film for her Masters. No, I'm not sure what I'm doing reviewing it instead. Yes, I'm afraid that she'll judge me (and hit me) for my review. Also: Her suggesting we break up the work this way may be a trap. That gets the most obvious questions out of the way. I haven't seen Nosferatu since I was a 17 year old film snob trying to earn extra elitist credit, without really knowing what I was doing. I was looking forward to seeing it again with my much more sophisticated eye (I was not looking forward to doing so knowing Doomwench would be standing by with a table of torture devices if I crossed her).

General Review
: Okay to be clear, this is a silent, black and white movie from 1922. If that sort of thing puts you
to sleep, Nosferatu isn't going to be the exception. Don't come knocking at my door with your complaints. This was filmed in a time when they were just inventing film pacing, so it isn't the glorious attention seeker that something like Crank is. If you're going to check this out on my say so, remember, you've been warned. Also, if you want the Nosferatu experience without seeing Nosferatu, there is always the excellent Shadow of the Vampire (oh and Herzog's 1979 version, which has both colour and sound and the awesome Klaus Kinski).

I hardly think I'm being controversial when I say that the best thing about this movie, besides being an interesting and great thesis topic (please don't hurt me), is Max Schreck. His performance would be great in a movie today, but it stands out even further given the over-the-top, vaudeville style performances that I've come to expect from old movies. Nosferatu isn't exempt from these, but let me go on and on about Schreck fo
r a moment more before getting into that. His stiff, looming presence remains pretty scary even with my easily bored (and yet superior) modern brain. Also: his make up was fairly simple but looked natural and very creepy.

It wasn't all disquieting acting and cool make up, however. My biggest complaint (aside from how long the title cards were held, it's okay movie, I can read) is Alexander Granach. He played Knock, the Renfield of the piece. His over the top capering belonged on the 70's Batman, at best. More than the silence and title cards, more than anything, his crouching, unsubtle performance took me out of the moment. And given the excellence of Schreck's make-up, his is surprisingly bad. Granach's scenes padded out the movie and it would have been better for just cutting them entirely.

Nosferatu didn't have the scope that a lot of the other silent films I've been watching have. The scene at the graveyard/beach (you heard me) was beautifully composed, but we didn't get much grandeur. There was a lot of talking in rooms for it having no sound. The special effects were impressive for the time (I particularly liked Orlock moving his crates of dirt at super speed).

I've been watching a lot of the silent film greats lately (much to the boredom of my husband) and a lot of them hold up surprising
ly well under modern scrutiny. Nosferatu is a pretty movie, but it isn't as pretty as the Holy Mountain. Schreck's performance is noteworthy, but there is a lot of generic, wooden silent film acting. I liked seeing Nosferatu for its important place in film (and vampire) history, the resounding impact it's had on movies now. It's easy to enjoy on those merits. However, as just a film, I fear that it's just starting to get too out of date for a regular, intelligent nerd audience.

.....and now to wait for the axe to fall....

: Finally, there were a lot more half naked men in it than I remembered. Which is to say, any.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Girl on Book Action: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin
ISNB: 978-0-316-04392-2


Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north.  But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky.  There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king.  But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle.


Announcement:  A quick announcement before my review – Girl on Book Action is looking for pictures of your sexy over-flowing bookshelves.  If you have one of those – or a meticulously organized one, those are sexy too – you can send a picture (or five) to our e-mail address along with a short blurb about the picture and of course the books.  The blog email is girlonbookaction [at] gmail [dot] com – you can also find it on the sidebar.

My Thoughts:

Well, this little novel (395 pages without the appendices) was a delight.  Yeine is a good choice for first-person narration and the disjointed way that she remembers events was a good hook.  The movement between different times and the conversation she has with an unnamed person in between her memories lend the novel a layer of complexity that sets it apart from other fantasy books.  I enjoy novels where the story is told as a recollection, rather than just having some external narrator telling you about things that happened without clear connection to how this absent narrator knows about the contents of the story.  The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms used first person narration skillfully.  It drew me in and made events seem more immediate than a more removed third person point of view.

It wasn’t a perfect book.  In some ways, it was formulaic and hit a number of items on the "generic fantasy checklist."  For example: political intrigue, powerful creatures and the idea of northern barbarians, torn loyalties and a protagonist being forced into a difficult social / political situation with little training.  I was often reminded of Jacqueline Carey’s two books in The Sundering series (which I reviewed here: Part One and Part Two), at least when it came to the mythology (I’m not saying that this is another take on Tolkien, because it’s not).  The subject matter of a conflict between light and dark gods and the talent shown in the telling were similar. 

While the set-up was generic, the execution made it work.  Sky the City was a fascinating setting and I think served as a good physical representation of the division between the world and its rulers since the city is quite literally built in the sky.  The world and the myth-building were good, as well.  The blurb may lead you to think it’s just about political intrigue and a struggle to survive, but it’s more than that – there are gods mixed up in all of this wrangling.  A chained god and his children, to be specific, punished for not accepting the rule of the god of light (you see how there are some generic elements here).  I don’t want to get into too many details of how the story unfolds, since it was well done and the revelations were well paced.  Some of the plot twists were a genuine surprise and pleasure.  I don’t like being able to predict the outcomes of novels and the generic elements here made me worried that it would conclude the way other such novels end, but it didn’t.

As a character, Yeine was alright, but no more than that.  Her continually losing her temper felt like a contrived character flaw and I didn't buy that she wouldn't learn from her past mistakes.  She gains so much knowledge, but better control doesn’t necessarily come with it.  I guess at the end she masters her anger issues, but that didn't make it less frustrating to read.  Maybe I just don’t understand anger well-enough (I tend to simmer until pushed to the brink and then boil over; she just exploded with little provocation).

Ultimately, I enjoyed this novel and I recommend you read it, too, if you like fantasy books.  For me, it turned out to be a bit of a diamond in the rough - setting my expectations low with the generic elements, but drawing me in and surprising me in the end.  The second part is out as a trade paperback so you don’t even have to wait to learn what happens next if you like what you read in the first one (yes, it’s part of a trilogy).

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Girl on Week Action: The Constant Princess

The Constant Princess. Written by Philippa Gregory.

Blurb: As youngest daughter to the Spanish monarchs and crusaders King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Catalina, princess of Wales and of Spain, was promised to the English Prince Arthur when she was three. She leaves Spain at 15 to fulfill her destiny as queen of England, where she finds true love with Arthur as they plot the future of their kingdom together. Arthur dies young, however, leaving Catalina a widow and ineligible for the throne. Before his death, he extracts a promise from his wife to marry his younger brother Henry in order to become queen anyway, have children and rule as they had planned, a situation that can only be if Catalina denies that Arthur was ever her lover.

Aside: That's right, I'm writing about a book this week. This certainly has nothing to do with me frittering my week away first preparing for the Emerald City Comic Con and then attending it. It's because of...a...deliberate choice...to...change things up. Also for those of you interested there may be pictures to follow. Not that the one has anything to do with the other.

Preconceptions: I need to make a confession. After the dual review Doomwench and I did of The Other Boleyn Girl, I read the book. No harm in that, surely. Then I read the next one. And then I kept reading. Now, I'm watching The Tudors (the True Blood of historical fiction shows). I don't know how I got suckered into paying attention to this particular period of history. Given that it's romanticized to a ridculous degree, you'd think I'd pooh-pooh it, but suckered in I have been. Mostly, I've just felt well deserved shame regarding the (trashier than usual) turn my reading has taken. But I felt substantially less shame after reading the Constant Princess.

General Review: Alright, lets get this out of the way: the Constant Princess has very little to do with what probably happened in the life of Katherine of Aragon. Oh, it touched on a few bits of historical fact, but a lot of it was clearly lies and deceit. More importantly, it was interesting lies and deceit. In case it isn't apparent: you shouldn't read the Constant Princess in lieu of historical education. Or take it internally in lieu of medicine.

What the Constant Princess lacked in historical accuracy it made up for in story telling. Most stories about Katherine make Anne Boleyn look like the interesting one and Katherine nothing more than the put upon, graceful and aging queen. This might be an entirely true take on what actually happened, but Gregory's story about Katherine as a stubborn ambitious woman was something I hadn't seen before and a very interesting read. Gregory's time line of Henry VIII turning from a pampered boy to a wife-killing tyrant was believable and well thought out. The slow transformation felt natural and was a fascinating character piece.

I've broken my own rule (again) and read a bit of criticism of this book. A lot of it talks about the inaccuracies and particularly how unlikely it is that Katherine would come to believe that the Spanish/English Christians and the Muslim Moors could live in peace. While I certainly agree that this is fairly unlikely in history, it makes for an excellent story about a woman coming to understand that her parents are flawed and fallible. The Constant Princess is an excellent character piece. The growth of Katherine and the regression of Henry are wonderfully portrayed and make a damned good foil for each other.

Gregory's language is lush (sometimes crossing the line into florid country, this is a Historical Romance after all). She also sometimes nails her repetitions in too hard for my tastes. As a style choice, it got on my nerves and as a "remind the audience what has happened" technique it really got on my nerves. The book is only some 400 pages long, I remember what you said last chapter and so does everyone else.

Of all the Tudor books (and I'm nearly finished the series now) this is far and away my favourite. Not many writers or film makers have spent time on Katherine before Anne Boleyn came onto the scene, and it turns out it's well worth exploring. I'd recommend this highly to anyone else who's willing to remove the dust jacket to avoid the shame of trashy reading.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Boy of the Month: Adam Scott

Where you know him from:

1) As "Henry" on "Party Down"
2) As "Ben" on "Parks and Recreation"
3) As "That douchey guy" on "Step Brothers"

Why I think he's dreamy:

I don't actually know why. There is something about his cute, scrunched up face and sardonic way of speaking that simultaneously hits my "adorable" and "snarky" receptors in a quite appealing way, I suppose.

I came upon Mr. Scott one weekend, when, looking for something to half-pay-attention-to while working on some craft projects, I found "Party Down" available to view instantly on Netflix. I then accidentally watched all of Season One that weekend, and Season Two the next. While weeping uncontrollably (well, sniffling a bit) for the lack of a Season Three, I discovered that Adam was in the more recent episodes of "Parks & Recreation", so I started watching that series, waiting with bated breath for my new boy to show up. Sigh.

Whatever it is about this guy that makes me swoon, I want to bottle it as cologne and spray it liberally on every guy I know. If I were writing and starring in a romantic comedy, this is the gentleman I would choose as my love interest. He's jumped RIGHT to the top of my
Top Five List.

Recommended Viewing:

If you haven't watched "Party Down", I highly recommend it. He also did a great job playing a teacher in an episode of "Veronica Mars". He's also had interesting bit parts in "Knocked Up", "Six Feet Under", and "The Aviator".

Also, this:

NOT Recommended Viewing:

Do not watch "Monster-In-Law" just because he's in it. He plays a sort of "wacky ambiguously gay neighbor" character and he's not in it enough to bear the whole rom-commy-ness of the whole mess. Under NO CIRCUMSTANCES should you attempt to watch "The Return", which I recorded from the Lifetime Movie Channel because it popped up in my TiVo WishList for Adam Scott. Unless you like vague supernatural "thrillers" that make no sense, in which case, go right ahead.

Important Note:

Apparently there is a golfer named "Adam Scott". So if you are looking for pictures of an adorable actor, and not a guy swinging a club, I recommend you add "-golf" to your search.

In Summation:

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Girl on Book Action: Whiskey and Water by Elizabeth Bear

Aside:  Since this is part two in I guess a duology I suggest you stop reading now if you are the sort to mind spoilers and haven’t read Blood and Iron (you can find my review of it here).  The back cover blurb will tell you some important details about what occurs in the first novel and I wouldn’t want to ruin it for you, dear readers.  If spoilers don’t bother you, or you’ve read the previous instalment, go right ahead and read on!

Whiskey and Water: A Novel of the Promethean Age by Elizabeth Bear
ISBN: 978-0-451-46248-0


Matthew the Magi followed Jane Andraste into Faerie to rescue her half-human daughter and destroy the Fae.  But when Matthew discovered Jane’s treachery, he betrayed her, and the Promethean armies fell.  Matthew lost his brother, his mentor, and his power.

Now Jane is recruiting a new army, and Matthew, the protector of New York City, discovers a young woman murdered by a beast almost certainly Fae.  To find the killer before Jane uses the crime to justify more war, Matthew must contend with Magi, Faerie, angels, and untamed forces of nature – and ultimately brave the greatest Adversary of all.


My Thoughts:

All the things I wrote about Blood and Iron hold true for this second instalment as well.  Whiskey and Water is a complex, layered work of fiction with multiple view-points, alliances and betrayals, three-dimensional characters and the merging of myth and what we consider the “real” world of New York City and Boston.  It’s the kind of book which doesn’t let you go once you get into it, you have to finish it as quickly as possible.  The story tugs you along and hurtles you headlong through the twists and turns, the shifting factions and allegiances until you get to the end, which feels less like an end and more like a short respite: time for you, and the characters, to catch your breath.

I think the only downside to this book was that much of it is told in Matthew’s voice and he isn’t one of my favourite characters.  His guilt and his often “woe is me” attitude just bother me.  Also, I prefer female protagonists despite my love for Romanticism and the predominance of dead, white men who wrote at that time.  Yes, yes I know, I’m a hypocrite and walking contradiction.

Anyway, Christopher (Kit) Marlowe more than made up for Matthew, and Morgan was a treat again.  The conflict between Lucifer, the other Devils (yes, there are multiple devils, one for each story) and Michael (the Archangel, a woman in this particular telling) was just one of the plots that made the narrative so gripping.  All of these characters are well-rendered and dynamic despite their archetypal natures.  Something else I admire about these novels is that Bear doesn’t hold back on killing people off.  People die, people get hurt, and they’re emotionally scarred by the events that surround them.  There is no pulling back, no flinching away from what the narrative needs and I appreciate that in a book.  I started to engage with a character and then I would grieve for their hurt, or their death. 

I know that I’m gushing a bit, but I really enjoyed this novel, and was surprised to enjoy it as much as the first one (I've mentioned the 2nd novel problem on the blog before so I won't go into it again in detail).  The interweaving of the modern world and mythology was well done again, too.  Seeing faeries and the kelpie and other creatures in the streets of New York is neat.  I don't have anything insightful to say about it, it's just plain good.  The way that Faerie, Heaven, Hell and the Iron world interact, the layers the realms create, is something special, something you don’t find in every book, especially not handled with such skilful precision.  Managing such a complex story is no easy task and Bear accomplishes it masterfully.

Overall, I put this novel at a cut above most urban fantasy I've read.  It'll have a place in my heart alongside Charles de Lint for sure.  While I feel a bit jaded toward the genre as a whole, these books are something different, something special.

Okay, enough gushing.  If you read Blood and Iron either on your own or based on my review and enjoyed it, I am sure you’ll also like this follow-up.  Whenever I get a handle on my to-read shelf and have some spare money I’ll likely pick up the other Promethean books.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Weeks Too Late: Aeon Flux

Aeon Flux. Directed by Karyn Kusama & Written by Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi.

Preconceptions: Well there have been a lot of foreign, think-y films around these parts lately. I had to keep the joint classed up while Doomwench was away, but now that she's back I decided to give my brain a bit of a break and do something blockbuster-y. While flicking through Netflix, I was reminded that I hadn't seen the live action version of Aeon Flux. At the time I assumed it was going to be so loosely based on the animated series that it might as well have been its own thing, so I scoffed and wandered off. As it turns out, most of my buddies did the same thing and I never actually heard how it turned out. I don't mind Charlize Theron and I thought it might be entirely possible that it was one of those flicks everyone dismissed because of ridiculously bad marketing.

General Review: Y'know...this wasn't as bad as I anticipated way back in 2005. Sure, there we problems, big problems, but it was entirely watchable. Some of the best scenes were cribbed from the animated series (with a couple of interesting diversions) and a lot of the weirdness was kept intact.

My biggest problems can be described by three big bullet points:
  • Dialogue
  • Standard Romantic Sub-Plot
  • Marton Csokas and his stupid face
I suppose that last one could really be two points because his stupid face, with its cow chewing on cud expression, bothered me immensely throughout. Csokas is supposed to be Trevor Goodchild, an all powerful genius scientist with a God complex. He seems a lot more likely to be mildly stoned and munching on potato chips than crossing lines man was not meant to cross.

One of the things I loved best about the animated series was the complex relationship between Aeon and Goodchild. She's strangely attracted to him despite his amorality and he's into her because she successfully messes up his plans. They're always foiling each others plans and have a real Spy vs Spy thing going on (if the two spies ended up making out occasionally). Rather than being her equal in the flick, Goodchild mostly just puppy dog's her heels and they're suddenly in completely uncomplicated love (except for the Robocop police guys chasing after them). He admits she's totally right about all her anarchist ideals and they ride off into the sunset. Lame. Some of this might have been saved if Csokas didn't come off as such a vacant weenie. Man did he suck.

The abysmal dialogue I can't blame on Csokas (though he did sell it worse than anyone else in the cast). Lines that might work in a surrealist animated piece simply don't fly in an action movie with a few pretensions to the odd. They just came off as strangely camp and stilted.

Well for a movie that I started out by saying wasn't that bad, I have spent a lot of time ripping into it. Seriously, though, it really wasn't. There were some right amazing physical scenes that Theron and the rest of the cast sold and while this wasn't as weird as the animated series there was a lot of weird sci-fi to be found. The way Kusama handled biological weaponry was impressive. And the overall story wasn't dumb, it was a neat take on the post apocalypse (which does seem to be a theme in the reviews over the last couple of weeks) and some cool science fiction concepts. The sets, colour pallet and the visuals in general were fun to watch.

I wish more time had been spent on honing Aeon Flux, because it felt like there was a great movie in here. It's a shame Kusama hasn't done a whole lot of other movies because I'd like to see more of her work (and I'm certainly not going to be seeing Jennifer's Body). Don't get me wrong, this wasn't great, but it was an alright sci-fi action movie that was a cut above some of the dregs I've seen lately. It also blew my rather gutter-y expectations out of the water.